Keep quiet about it

Alan Ryan

  • Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe by Bart Schultz
    Cambridge, 858 pp, £40.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 521 82967 4

This is an extraordinary – and extraordinarily interesting – book, a model of intellectual biography. Henry Sidgwick’s day job was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. He is today best known as the author of Methods of Ethics, a work that philosophers still mine, and the model for modern masterpieces such as John Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. But Sidgwick was one of those terrifyingly hard-working Victorians whose day job was a small part of what they got through, and although his moral philosophy gets very adequate treatment from Bart Schultz, it occupies barely a quarter of the volume.

Sidgwick was one of the founding fathers of Newnham College (his wife, Eleanor, was assistant to the first principal, Annie Clough, and succeeded her as the second principal); he was one of the modernisers of late Victorian Cambridge; he was president of the Society for Psychical Research, and unmasked innumerable fraudulent mediums while wistfully hoping eventually to encounter the real thing; he was the author not only of works of philosophy, but of the Principles of Political Economy and The Elements of Politics; he was more than well connected: one sister married E.H. Benson, the future archbishop of Canterbury, another married the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Lord Rayleigh. Eleanor’s brother was the future prime minister Arthur Balfour. Sidgwick knew a great deal about the inner workings of English politics as the various Irish and imperial crises unfolded throughout the last third of the 19th century; the unease those crises provoked permeated his economics and politics, and he was constantly being asked for his thoughts about them.

That might suggest that Sidgwick led a wholly public life, engrossed in good works on the public stage. Nothing could be further from the truth. His friendship with John Addington Symonds was a central feature of his life. For much of the 20th century Symonds was more famous for his seven-volume History of the Renaissance in Italy than for his contributions to Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion; but in his own day, his far from secret homosexuality made him a scandalous figure, just as it made him a hero of Gay Liberation when he was rediscovered in the 1960s. Sidgwick was the embarrassed but unshocked recipient of Symonds’s confidences about his homosexual attachments and adventures; and he did his best to act as something of an ambassador from the straight to the gay world, trying to restrain Symonds from too straightforwardly self-destructive a path while also trying to take back to the straight world the imaginative insights that he found in Symonds’s rethinking of sexuality and male friendship. Not unreasonably, Symonds thought that a more accurate understanding of ‘Greek Ethics’ had implications for Victorian morality, and Sidgwick was very willing to take him seriously.

Given these disparate aspects of Sidgwick’s life Schultz has to be much more than a careful philosophical analyst. He is certainly a scrupulous and well-read analyst, but he also offers, among many other things, a nuanced history of the erosion of orthodox religious belief among Victorian intellectuals, an account of the attractions of Walt Whitman for sexual radicals who had a vague inkling that democracy and sexual openness were intimately connected, an extended assault on the unselfconscious racism and imperialism of Sidgwick’s political writings, and an account of Sidgwick’s interest in spiritualism that does more to make his half-belief sympathetic (if not entirely intelligible) than any I have seen.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in